With the Bible’s teaching on joy in all circumstances, it is easy for us as Christians to think that happiness is the Christian’s norm and, therefore, that sadness is the Christian’s exception. We can sometimes find ourselves assuming that we should always be in a cheery mood unless something truly tragic has happened. We can tend to assume that contentment in the Lord means feeling generally happy about everyday life. If we are not feeling joy, we often assume we are doing something wrong, that something needs to be fixed.
This assumption is easily fueled by our cultural moment. Personal happiness and satisfaction are our culture’s highest goods. Everything else in life should come under the supremacy of personal happiness. Marketers and the media convince us that if any facet of our life jeopardizes our inner happiness, it’s got to go. If you’re not finding personal fulfillment in your job, find something different. If your partner isn’t giving you the love you want, break it off. If buying this or that new thing is what it takes to give you joy, just do it! Life is all about finding your happiness. Almost anything can be justified by the phrase, “Well, if it makes you happy . . .”
Whether it’s Scripture taken out of context, an unsaid Christian expectation, your favorite celebrity, or daily instagram ads, we all find ourselves being bombarded with this message: Be happy! And while being happy is usually packaged as a liberating invitation to “allow” yourself to enjoy life to the full, it can often feel an unattainable ideal.
So what do we do when we go through seasons where happiness is not the norm, but rather the exception? What if sadness or apathy becomes my daily routine, and joy becomes a rare, but welcomed, surprise? When sadness becomes our norm, we need to double check both the Christian and non-Christian influences that have taught us how to think about emotions.
To begin, it is certainly true that the Scriptures speak commands of joy to God’s people. That’s right; not just invitations, but commands. The Bible does not merely allow us to feel joy, it tells us to feel joy: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 NIV). Rejoice is used in the imperative sense; it is a command. Paul is saying that just as we have a duty to pray and give thanks as believers in Christ, we also have a duty to rejoice—and not only rejoice sometimes, but rejoice always! When we read a verse like this while going through a season of general gloominess, we can easily assume that there is something inherently wrong with sadness for the Christian. Even worse, our sadness can go from being generally melancholy to being despondent because we hear that we are “supposed” to have joy all the time and just can’t seem to make it work.
Some Christians have answered this conundrum by making a distinction between what the world calls “happiness” and what the Bible calls “joy.” Christians often believe when the world talks about happiness, they are talking about fleeting pleasures, and when the Bible talks about joy, they say it’s referring to something that even the worst circumstances can’t take away. They say happiness is circumstantial, while joy is permanent; happiness is shallow and shortsighted, whereas joy is deep and transcendent.
But the Bible does not really have two separate categories for happiness and joy. When the Bible speaks of joy, it is speaking of a pleasant feeling of delight or affection, not just an abstract sense that God is good. Most often, when we read the word “joy” in the Scriptures, it is referring to what we would normally conceptualize as happiness. When Paul commands the Thessalonians to rejoice, he is essentially saying “Be happy!” If you read across Bible translations, you will find evidence that happiness and joy are synonyms, not separate categories applied to either the world or the church.
In addition, we do not have any good reason linguistically to make such a sharp distinction between feeling happiness and feeling joy. Historically, the church has not regarded any such a distinction between the two English words. It was the Puritan tradition in American Christianity that prized the idea of Christian joy. In their writings, joy and happiness are used completely synonymously. Turns out, making the distinction between joy and happiness may not always be the best answer to the problem of persistent sorrow in the Christian life.
Instead, the Bible seems to wholly affirm the reality, and even the command to be happy, while simultaneously wholly affirming the reality, and even the obligation of sorrow. Consider of a few texts:
“Mourn with those who mourn.”Romans 12:15 NIV
“The LORD is close to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”Psalm 34:18 NIV
“Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.”James 4:9
“You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?”Psalm 56:8
Or consider Christ himself, who though he “knew no sin,” is also described as weeping over death (John 11:35), mourning of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44), becoming “troubled in spirit” (John 13:21), and who is given the title “man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3)! Talk about sadness being the norm!
Surely, a biblical understanding of joy cannot exclude the possibility of sadness, for the Bible affirms and demonstrates sadness as a proper emotion of the righteous. It may not be that we need to distinguish joy from happiness, so much as we need to cease making happiness and sadness mutually exclusive. Take Matthew 5:4 where Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The Greek term for “blessed” here is not some abstract, spiritual state; it could just as easily be translated as “happy are those who mourn.” Let me repeat that for all of us, “happy are those who mourn.” Wow. What a line.
Paul claims something similar in 2 Corinthians 6 when he speaks of the paradoxical life of a believer: “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:8b-10). Paul acknowledges the paradox of living in a broken world and a gospel world at the same time. The Christian has a foot in each world. It creates the kind of life where one can indeed be sorrowful while simultaneously rejoicing. We can be sad in this broken world, and we can simultaneously be happy in this gospel world. It makes possible the statement “happy are those who mourn.”
Paul realizes that there is something inherent in the Christian life that produces both sorrow and joy. While living in the “already-not-yet,” the Christian continues to feel the weight of a broken, often miserable world, while also enjoying the goodness and greatness of God in the midst of that world. It’s not “either-or” when it comes to happiness and sadness, it’s “both/and.”
The idea that a mature Christian is always peppy and unrealistically positive is a blatant theological mistake. Indeed, there is a sense in which the Christian ought to feel the brokenness of our world even more deeply than the unbeliever. For the Christian knows what this world was made to be. And it is only in knowing what we were made to be that we can mourn properly what we have instead become. And so sometimes life is gloomy. The world is not yet fully restored, and neither are you and me. In a biblical worldview, sadness makes sense, even when it’s just a general feeling of gloom or simply a drag in our feet. Life is not yet fully what it ought to be and you can be sad about that.
Ultimately, the Christian should fight to conform their emotions to reality, not utopia. We look forward to the day when sadness no longer has a place, but we do not pretend that day is today. Until that day, we do not resist every moment of melancholy. When going through a season of sadness, remember, it is possible to be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). It is possible to feel discontent with everyday existence while delighting in God’s character. It is possible to feel the weight of life in a world without Christ, while also rejoicing at the thought of the day when you will live forever with him. We can be sad in the world and happy in Christ. And that’s emotional realism, not blind optimism. Maybe that is why those who mourn are truly the “happy” ones, because their emotions stem from reality—from the truth. It is that paradox that inspires the Christian emotional life: those who weep today will be relieved tomorrow in eternity. We feel both the malaise of brokenness, and the happiness of restoration.
Read repeatedly and meditate upon 2 Corinthians chapters 5 and 6, specifically with focus on the theme of “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” in verse 10.
Look for the different ways that Paul leans into the brokenness and sadness of this world in which we “groan” and how he simultaneously views the this broken world in terms of God’s great redeeming love, “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (5:19).
Look for every instance of “paradox” in Paul’s emotions. Note that he both “groans” and “longs” from the worldly perspective, while also being “always of good courage” through God’s providence and Spirit.
How can you encourage yourself when sadness becomes your “new normal” through the example of Paul in these chapters? Is sadness a bad emotion? How can sadness be healthy when considering the paradox of this sinful, yet in always the process of being redeemed, world?
Photo credit: Emilee Carpenter
Paige McBride is from western PA, living happily in a small town with her husband Brett and their first child on the way! She is a self-proclaimed Bible geek and a seminary student through Reformed Theological Seminary. She spends her days working part time in ministry at her local church as she teaches dance and creates wedding floral arrangements. She is a lover of all things Old Testament and discipleship. She is passionate about equipping women to engage with the Scriptures and passing along all the biblical wisdom that she has learned throughout her years in college and seminary education.